- Race and the Mind/Body Problem
When I was asked to respond to Gabrielle Foreman’s essay, my first thought was, “Oh no, here we go again.” This was neither condemnation of nor boredom with the topic of scholarly subjectivity, but a testimony to its endurance as an issue and my failure to come up with any satisfactory answers in the years since Nellie McKay’s or Barbara Christian’s prophetic call(s). Over the years I have faced this conundrum from various positionalities: as a graduate student during the backlash over affirmative action in the early 1990s, as a faculty member when the only other black woman in the department retired without a replacement, and now as department chair who, in a climate of shrinking resources, struggles to make the case for a second (!) African Americanist while the intellectual ground justifying such a hire crumbles beneath my feet. Here we go. Again.
Foreman aptly approaches the difficulty as both an intellectual and an institutional problem—in other words, a mind/body problem. Part of the founding intellectual premise of African American studies was the need to redress the underrepresentation of African Americans within academia. While this need was often couched in political terms, it was intellectually necessary to diversify the curriculum and the underlying methodologies of the disciplines. The institutional underrepresentation still exists; however, the intellectual ground has shifted, creating a mind/body split between intellect (conceived as an interior, ahistorical function of pure reason) and representation (viewed as an exterior expression of historically, culturally, and socially specific bodies). Foreman referenced, correctly, the dearth of black participation in the Editing Early African American Literature conference in Toronto in 2012.1 Interestingly, the conference program staged the approach to this vital subject as a series of (rhetorical) questions: [End Page 73]
What is an African American Book?
Who is an African American Author?
Who is an African American Reader?(DeLombard, Warren, and Chakkalakal)
The riddle-like nature of these questions stems from the instability of the common signifier: African American. Thus, our inability to answer definitively the implied question—who is an African American?—becomes tacit proof of “post-racialization”; mind (ahistorical intellect) trumps body (historical representation).
A similar problem of (absent) bodies occurred at the 2013 American Literature Association Conference, where one panel, “New Paradigms for African American Literary Study,” was composed of three non-black men and one white woman. On the one hand this is, indeed, a new paradigm and a sign of progress. After all, wasn’t the goal of black studies to make the case for the importance of African American subjects for all scholars? Shouldn’t we be ecstatic that our non–African American colleagues want to work in the field? Isn’t the presence of non-black scholars on panels, at conferences, and in anthologies about African American literature the ultimate sign that the work of the Barbara Christians and Nellie McKays has made its mark? Yes. And no. The reality is that academic panels, conferences, and published volumes2 reflect the institutional inequities in academic departments where black scholars are often overcommitted with service responsibilities or lack travel funding to be present and accounted for. Thus Christian’s prophetic warning of a day when black studies as a site of intellectual inquiry would “thrive while Black people in the Academy [would] barely survive” has come to pass (qtd. in Foreman 308).
While I enjoyed the papers at both venues, I found myself holding back in both instances from addressing the identity makeup of the presenters, lest I be dismissed as “racist,” “angry black womanish,” or “old school,” lest I spoil the “post-racial” moment. In cases where an obvious racial disconnect between the subject and the speakers exists—where “race walks in” the ballroom, conference room, table of contents3—the convener, panel chair, or editor should put the identity of the participants on the table for discussion. To fail to do so is to abdicate that responsibility and to make it the burden of the Other. After all, the goal of black studies was to make conversations about race easier in the classroom, faculty meeting, and larger society...